Today was an off-kilter day for all of us. I was up most of last night nursing Geoffrey and both Teddy and Jo Jo seemed cranky and overtired. I had to wake them up from naps at almost 4 pm. Jo Jo didn’t want her milk, or the applesauce she usually scarfs down for her afternoon snack. The only thing she would eat was a brownie, which she managed to smear all over her pink and white striped sundress.
I debated changing her outfit before we headed out, but decided against it. It would take too long, and besides, it would just upset her even more. I tried to redo her ponytails, but she cried and swatted my hand away when I got anywhere near her hair. So I bundled two sticky fingered toddlers into the car along with a squawking newborn, and we set off for the park.
It was brutally humid out, and the air was so heavy I felt like I was trudging through molassas as I pushed Teddy on the swing. Jo Jo refused to move, insisting on sitting in the gazebo with a sleeping Geoffrey and Sarah, our babysitter. I finally managed to coax her into the toddler play area. She went right to her favorite spot—the little kitchen area of the tree house—and stayed there, leaning against the table and grumbling.
I noticed a woman sitting on the bench near us nursing a newborn. Her son, who looked around Teddy’s age, was right next to her, as was an older blonde woman.
“Congratulations,” I said to her. “How old?”
“Two weeks,” she said. We exchanged new mom talk for a few minutes before I realized Teddy was no longer glued to my leg. I spun around in a panic until I saw him, sitting in the bus with the woman’s son. I collected Jo Jo—she’d been sitting in one area far too long—and we walked over to him.
Teddy beamed when he saw us. “Store,” he said proudly. “Teddy go store.”
The older blonde woman was sitting in the back seat of the bus, nodding her head and smiling that broad benevolent grin people sometimes get when they’re really not sure how to play with little kids. “”Is he your grandson?” I asked her, pointing to the boy next to Teddy.
“Yes,” she said. She stared at Jo Jo, and then collected herself and looked away. I could tell she was trying hard to keep her face expressionless, but her eyes betrayed her. She was looking at my daughter with a mixture of bewilderment and horror, as if a large feral chimpanzee had somehow managed to wander into the toddler park.
It was unnerving, but I wondered if intense sleep deprivation was just making me paranoid. “It’s great that your daughter has you here to help out.”
“She’s not my daughter,” she said. “I’m her mother in law.”
“Oh,” I said. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, then she nodded at Teddy.
“Such a handsome boy,” she said. “Just darling. Look at those eyes. He’s going to be a little heartbreaker when he grows up.”
“Thank you,” I said, waiting for her to say something about Jo Jo.
She looked at my daughter and said nothing.
I stood there and stared at her. She didn’t meet my eyes but instead stuck her hand in her purse and began fiddling around, pretending to look for something.
Thankfully for her, she was saved by the arrival of another little girl, a flaxen-haired toddler wearing a pink dress very similar to Jo Jo’s.
“Why hello there,” the woman said. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing. You’re darling, just darling. Look at those curls! And that adorable big pink bow!”
That did it for me. I yanked both my children off the bus and we were out of the play area in a flash. I spent the rest of my time in the park as far away from the woman as possible, pushing Jo Jo in the swing and chasing Teddy up and down the big kid slide.
We passed the woman on the way out. She was chatting up another new mom, gushing about her baby. “Will you look at all that hair? You must have had terrible heartburn.” And then, “she’s darling, you know, just darling.”
I turned around and looked at Jo Jo. She was runny nosed and goopy eyed and had dirt streaked all over her face. Her ponytails sagged despondently, like demented bunny ears. There was no doubt about it. Any objective outsider would have looked at her and seen an absolute mess.
Part of me was mentally kicking myself as we loaded all the kids back into the car. I wondered if I had taken the time to change her sundress and actually fix her hair into a respectable braid instead of two ragamuffin ponytails if it would have made a difference.
But at the end of the day I realize it probably wouldn’t have. Johanna could have been wearing a Burberry sundress and Gucci sneakers, and the woman would have looked at her exactly the same way. Bigotry is bigotry, and that woman would still have seen just the Down Syndrome.
Still, it hurts. It hurts to know that there is still so much ignorance in this world, although thankfully there’s only been a handful of times when I’ve actually experienced it.
At least to me, my daughter is the most beautiful child I have ever seen.